Human Remains Presented as Evidence in Sepur Zarco Trial

The landmark Sepur Zarco trial started in Guatemala City on February 1, 2016. Prosecutors allege that in 1982, Guatemala’s armed forces repeatedly attacked the small village of Sepur Zarco, capturing and killing or disappearing male Q’eqchi’ campesino leaders who were seeking to obtain legal titles to their lands, which had been systematically taken away from them through fraud and violence. Prosecutors also allege that for the six months after the disappearances and executions of male community leaders in August 1982, soldiers raped many of the widows, often in front of children, and subjected them systematically to sexual and domestic slavery. In some cases these practices continued for six years. Two individuals, Lieutenant Esteelmer Reyes Giron and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig, are facing charges for sexual violence, sexual and domestic slavery, enforced disappearance, and murder.

During the trial’s first week, more than 20 victims from Sepur Zarco testified in court about a variety of abuses they suffered at the hands of the Guatemalan army between 1982 and 1988. The second week of the trial began with testimonies from a number of expert witnesses, including historians, forensic anthropologists and archeologists, and social psychologists. It is expected that additional expert witness and victim testimony will continue to be heard in the course of the week. This report covers the proceedings that took place on February 8 and 9.

One of the most dramatic moments of the proceedings was the presentation on Tuesday of 38 boxes filled with human remains and the belongings of 51 victims who were killed at the military bases in Tinajas and Sepur Zarco. (The army had a series of military bases in the Alta Verapaz/Izabal region; each had a different function, according to the Paula Barrios of Mujeres Transformando el Mundo, one of the member organizations of the Breaking the Silence Alliance that is a civil party to the proceedings. The Sepur Zarco military base was primarily used as a “recreation area” for soldiers, and where many of the rapes occurred.) Only two of the 51 victims have been positively identified, in part due to the deteriorated nature of the bones, making identification difficult. One of the individuals identified was the husband of one of the victims of sexual violence in this case.

February 8, 2016

Juan Carlos Peláez Villalobos testified about the history of land conflicts in the Polochic Valley, where Sepur Zarco is located. Historically this territory belonged to the Maya Q’eqchi’, but over the years they lost their land through fraud and violence. Conflicts over land in Guatemala —and in Latin American more generally— have roots in Spanish colonialism, and land grabbing often continued after independence. The expert explained that the Central American Archives and other archives contain ample documentary evidence of centuries of land struggles in the Polochic region.

Community leaders in the early 1980s attempted to obtain legal title to their lands in order to prevent ongoing land grabs by local landowners, or finqueros. The expert testified about the nature of land acquisition: “The landed estates (fincas) are created in direct relationship to the dismemberment of the historic territory of the Maya Q’eqchi’ in Sepur Zarco.” This is significant since several witnesses have testified that the men who were disappeared or killed by the military when they first arrived in the region in 1982 were community leaders who were trying to obtain legal titles to community lands. Several witnesses also asserted that the finqueros called upon the military to come to the area to help them suppress these activities.

The expert witness, Peláez, also stated that historically, sexual violence and enslavement of indigenous peoples was part of the process of land dispossession. “The indigenous people and the peasants were not considered to be human beings; they were viewed exclusively as arms to work the fields,” he said. As for the women, he said: “They were completely subordinated to the will of the finquero. The motto was: “In the fields, in the kitchen, in the bed.” This situation from the late 19th century remains present to this day, he stated.

Prosecutor Hilda Pineda García asked Peláez to explain the efforts in Sepur Zarco to recover community land. He stated that leaders were designated to process paperwork and visit the different government offices necessary in order to recover their lands. “They were using legal channels to recover their land,” he asserted. On the contrary, he said, the finqueros resorted to fraud, illegal procedures, and violence to strip the land from the local communities.

In response to a question about what kind of irregularities could have contributed to the violence witnessed in Sepur Zarco in 1982-83, Peláez reponded: “The finqueros were afraid that the truth [about these irregularities] would become known… They had to silence the indigenous communities.” The expert made specific reference to the Milla family, who he said acquired vast tracts of land in the Sepur Zarco region between 1975 and 2005. Sexual violence was a symbol of domination by the finqueros to ensure the submission of the peasant farmers (campesinos). However, he said, because of the deep-seated racism in Guatemala, the finqueros themselves would rarely rape an indigenous woman; they would send their administrators, or the police or military, to do this.

Moises Galindo, Reyes Giron’s lead defense lawyer, was absent today. Co-counsel Ismael García asked Peláez if he had encountered any military plans elaborated by Reyes Giron. The prosecution objected, and the tribunal upheld the objection because this was outside the scope of the witness’s expertise. He also asked if there were land seizures in 1982-83, to which the expert replied no. He also asked if the Ley de Mandamientos was valid in 1982-83. (This law was part of the repressive labor system in Guatemala from the 19th century until the mid-20th century.) Peláez said that technically no, it had been derogated with the Revolution of 1944, but that it continued to be implemented in many places.

The defense lawyer asked a number of additional questions unrelated to the subject matter, leading Judge Barrios to instruct the parties to ask simple, concrete and direct questions of the witnesses. Finally, the lawyer asked the expert who paid for him to testify. The judge instructed him not to answer.

Defense attorney for Valdes Asig, Fidencia Orozco, asked questions about the expert’s academic background. She also asked him to confirm the cases of sexual violence that are the subject of these proceedings; the prosecution successfully objected to this because the witness is not an expert on these cases but on the historic land conflicts in the region.

The next expert witness was Karen Peña Juarez, a physician and forensic psychiatrist who works at the National Institute of Forensic Anthropology (INACIF). She was asked to ratify the psychological evaluations she performed on 18 of the victims from Sepur Zarco. Peña Juarez explained that the narratives presented by the witnesses are coherent and consistent with victims of torture and persecution. She described that the victims experience real physical ailments associated with the abuse they suffered (women who experienced multiple rapes have chronic back pain, for example) as well as psychosomatic pain, including fear, physical pain, and stress, that is the result of severe trauma that they experienced. Stress produces other maladies, and precarious living conditions exacerbate the situation.

In reference to the torture and sexual abuse that the victims of Sepur Zarco experienced, Peña Juarez stated: “These are not normal life experiences. These are traumatic experiences, and because they are catastrophic, they can cause irreversible damage to the victim’s psyche.”

Defense lawyer Ismael García asked questions about the methods Peña Juarez employed to conduct her evaluations and if the victims had named those responsible. They largely had not, Peña Juarez responded. The lawyer then asked her about an invoice she allegedly presented to the Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial  (Team for Community Research and Psychosocial Action, ECAP), an organization that has provided psychosocial support to the victims, for 5,000 quetzals in 2011. Judge Barrios instructed the witness not to respond because what was of interest was her expert testimony. Defense attorney Orozco asked the expert witness if the women spontaneously shared their stories with her. Peña Juarez responded that there was a process of working with the victims to help them express themselves, using guided questions.

Two witnesses from the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) testified on Monday. The first expert witness, Jorge Luis Romero de Paz, testified about the exhumations conducted in Tinajas military base. He described interviews with 107 individuals, in which the community members consistently accused the army, military commissioners, and the finqueros of perpetrating enforced disappearances against community leaders, mostly men. This was done either by abducting them from their homes or calling them to meetings from which they never returned. In addition, the FAFG interviewed survivors of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery, who directly described the abuses they suffered. The expert also stated that every one of the 78 family groups in Sepur Zarco suffered a violation during this period.

The second expert from FAFG to testify was forensic anthropologist Jaime Enrique Ruiz. He described the FAFG’s methodology and ratified a report of one of the exhumations carried out at the request of the Attorney General’s Office in this case.

The final witness testimony of the day was Candelaria Maas Sacul, whose videotaped testimony was presented in the afternoon. The victim testified that she witnessed soldiers take away her husband, Ricardo Caal. They tied his hands behind his back and took him to the Tinajas military base. She said they told her not to look for him because they were going to kill him and throw him in a hole. She has not yet found his body. She stated that she believed they killed him because he was one of the community leaders seeking to obtain land titles. She also stated that soldiers brought to the Sepur Zarco military base, where they raped her and forced her to work for six months. She stated she received no payment for the work she did at the base, and that she even had to buy the soap to wash the soldiers’ clothes. During that time, she was raped every other day by soldiers. Maas Sacul said that sometimes she was raped by five soldiers at a time. She stated that the military commissioner, Don Andres Caal, was the one who forced them to work. After those six months, she was allowed to go home but she still had to cook for the soldiers.

February 9, 2016

Upon arrival into the courtroom on Tuesday morning, the area between the bench, the parties to either side, and the witness, was filled with 38 cardboard boxes. Each of the boxes was sealed with white tape indicating that the boxes contained evidence presented by the Attorney General’s office. Each of the boxes was enumerated; 33 of them said “Finca Tinajas, Panzos, A.V. (Alta Verapaz), FAFG” followed by numbers and dates; five of them read “Sepur Zarco, Panzos, A.V. (Alta Verapaz), FAFG.”

FAFG is the Guatemalan Foundation of Forensic Anthropology, a scientific organization that has been working for two decades using forensic and other methods to locate and identify individuals who were forcibly disappeared or are otherwise missing from the period of the internal armed conflict in Guatemala. On Monday, two FAFG anthropologists explained the organization’s methodology in collecting ante- and post-mortem data, interviewing victims to facilitate the search for the missing, the process of identifying mass graves and exhuming bodies, and methods used, including forensics, DNA, and other mechanisms, to identify the bodies so that they can be returned to their families for burial. FAFG has a long-standing agreement with the Attorney General’s Office of Guatemala to assist in the search for the missing, and has exhumed more than 5,000 bodies.

Prosecutors called on FAFG forensic archeologist Juan Carlos Gatica Pérez to explain the evidence being presented. He explained that FAFG was asked by the Attorney General’s Office to conduct exhumations in Alta Verapaz and Izabal in 2012. He stated that FAFG located 13 gravesites at the former Tinajas military base, in Senahú, Alta Verapaz. He explained that this was an open context case, meaning they were uncertain about the identities of those who were buried there.

Gatica Pérez testified that the FAFG team found 48 complete bodies and the remains of three additional people. In addition to human remains, they found ropes, blindfolds, shoelaces, clothing made of synthetic material, coins, and other such items, in the gravesites. About half of the bodies were found lying face down, while about half were found lying face up, which the witness said revealed that the bodies had been thrown into the grave rather than being placed there as would be consistent with a traditional burial site or cemetery. Many of the bodies were found with ropes tied around their wrists, ankles and necks, he said. Also, the bodies were buried with no protective covering, and as a result the bones were badly deteriorated. Chemicals from the nearby sugar plantation that seep into the earth may have also contributed to the deterioration of the bones, according to the expert.

Defense attorney Moisés Galindo asked Gatica Pérez about his academic and practical experience, then questioned him about how FAFG decides to work in specific areas, the international standards that govern their work, and the nature of the agreement between FAFG and the Attorney General’s office.  Galindo asked whether prosecutors or police officers were present at the exhumations; Gatica Pérez responded that they were. Galindo asked a series of other questions about the exhumations that the prosecutor or the civil party lawyers objected to on grounds that the witness had already provided the answer or they were beyond the scope of his expertise. Galindo also questioned the expert about the chain of custody of the evidence, suggesting that the evidence could have been contaminated or manipulated. “I want to make sure that the remains that they found are the same remains that are analyzed in the expert report, and that is why we are asking questions about the chain of custody of the evidence,” he said. Judge Barrios asked the defense attorney to focus his questioning on the scientific expertise of the witness.

Another forensic archeologist from FAFG, Oscar Ariel Ixpatan, testified next. He was asked to ratify a report based on the forensic analysis of the human remains found at Tinajas. He confirmed that 23 of the remains were masculine; it was impossible to determine the sex of the remaining bodies. He stated that the remains revealed signs of severe trauma, including bullet wounds and cuts that were the result of sharp objects like machetes or axes. Ixpatan confirmed that many of the bodies had been found with ropes tied around their wrists and ankles and necks. Ixpatan also stated that the FAFG team found several coins dating from 1969 to 1979, which helps circumscribe the dates in which the events occurred.

The remains for two of the victims were not presented in court because they had been positively identified and returned to their relatives for burial. The victims in question were Sebastián Coc and Sabino Chen Chaman. The prosecution noted that Sebastián Coc was the husband of one of eleven victims of sexual violence, Rosa Tiul, whose prerecorded testimony was presented in court on Friday, February 5.

The tribunal then ordered the opening of each of the boxes, which contained the remains of one or two people each, and exhibited them briefly on the raised platform just at the foot of the bench. It was a somber moment, with national and international press there to record the moving images of the first bones and articles of clothing being removed from the boxes. The first box contained several articles of clothing, rubber boots, and several paper bags; the bags contained the bones of the victims, and all were laid out briefly, long enough for the judges to record the content of the box and for the defense attorneys to examine the evidence on display. This process continued for the entire morning and afternoon without interruption until the court adjourned for the day at around 3:00p.m. One of the civil party lawyers told us that the women victims, who sat behind their lawyers with their heads covered by colorful Mayan scarves to protect their identities, had been praying for several days in anticipation of the presentation of the bones and that they experienced significant distress as the bones were removed from and returned to the boxes.

The civil parties sought to offer two expert witnesses to provide additional information about the human remains exhumed at the Tinaja military base. But the judges refused to hear their testimony, saying that they had not accepted these experts when they were introduced at the start of the trial because their expert report refers to events that are not being considered in these proceedings. Paula Barrios, the executive director of Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (Women Transforming the World) – one of the civil parties in the proceedings – said that MTM’s investigation in the Sepur Zarco case was broader than the case currently being heard in court. After the presentation of the human remains from Tinajas, the civil parties were hoping that the court would allow the expert witnesses to provide their testimony in order to provide further context and explain how these killings are related to other crimes under consideration in these proceedings. Since individuals other than the two defendants in the current case are presumed responsible for these crimes, the court did now allow this.

The defense lawyers were given a final opportunity to cross-examine the FAFG expert witness Ixtapán. Moisés Galindo insisted again on the question of the need to see the documents demonstrating the chain of custody of the evidence. Valdez Asig’s lawyer said she also questioned the chain of custody and stated that some of the items listed in the expert report do not coincide with what was contained in the boxes. She also questioned why the remains of two of the victims were returned to the families, since these constitute evidence in a criminal proceeding. Prosecutor Hilda Pineda García stated that the case file includes information about the chain of custody. Judge Barrios asked Ixtapán to ratify his report, which he did. Judge Barrios proceeded to reject the defense’s objection to the evidence. Procedurally, she said, any doubts about the evidence should be addressed in closing arguments.

The physical evidence of human remains was a powerful reminder of what is at stake in these proceedings.

Jo-Marie Burt is an associate professor of political science and director of Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).